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The 2011 Philippine Biodiversity Expedition 

May 27, 2011

Like…totally tubular!

Most of the critters I’m working with during this expedition are so tiny that you need a microscope to examine them…sometimes even just to locate them!   There are lots of exceptions, however, and one of them involves a very cool critter called a chaetopterid worm that I encountered the other day. Since it was fairly big and impressive (colleagues actually stopped by to gawk at it in awe) and because these are such creepy-cool worms, I thought I’d share.
While working in a sandy seagrass area the other day, I dug up a large parchment (which is sand stuck together with mucus) tube about an inch in diameter that was sticking up out of the sandy sea bottom.
Typically this type of tube houses a fanworm (a sabellid) with delicate fan-shaped radioles stretched into a sort of funnel-shaped plume like this:
In sabellid fanworms each radiole has tiny hair-like structures called cirri used to filter small particles of food from the water to be carried to the mouth.   So considering the tube’s appearance, I was expecting a nice fat fanworm to emerge as I eagerly cut into my tube back at the lab, kind of like I was unwrapping some sort of creepy worm shaped gift.  This tube, however, was shaped more like a “U” buried under the sand and so I suspected that it might house something a bit different. And it did…a very large chaetopterid worm!
Chaetopterids are very specialized polychaetes (marine bristleworms) that live their lives confined in tubes. These worms have 3 distinct body regions: the head/anterior region is large and equipped with bristles and a set of palps used for sensory.  The middle of the body is made up of the darkened gut and highly modified lobes that pump back and forth like big flaps to provide a steady water current used in feeding.
The tail/posterior region is more “normal-worm-looking”, meaning long with foot appendages called parapodia carrying bristles on either side of the body.


These worms feed using mucus nets which they string across the inside of their tubes to trap food particles by pumping water through their tubes to filter food onto the net.   Once it’s full of food they eat the whole deal and then proceed to make a new net. Other critters, such as smaller worms and crabs, often live alongside chaetopterids in their tubes as commensal animals which score free food scraps and shelter while living there.

Another cool thing about these worms is that even though they live rather clandestine lives hidden in tubes, they produce bioluminescence (they emit light!). What in the world they are doing with this light-producing capability?  Well, we don’t know for certain.  Studies have shown that when a chaetopterid is disturbed, it shoots a wave of glowing particles from its tube.  One idea is that this light surge alerts prospective predators that “I don’t taste particularly good”, or maybe the light bursts are used to freak out and evict some of the free-loading critters out their tubes if it starts getting too crowded in there.

Many polychaetes and other invertebrates emit light when disturbed, either for warning/predator avoidance or for communication with potential mates.   The yellow bands shown here on a nereid “pileworm” may be bioluminescent areas of the body used for signaling.
Polychaete worm behavior and physiology is as extremely diverse as their morphology.  For such “sleeper” creatures that are unfamiliar to most regular folks, polychaete worms actually have alot going on!

Filed under: Academy,Diving,Philippines,Piotrowski,Shallow Water,Uncategorized — cpiotrowski @ 4:39 am

May 13, 2011

Photosynthetic Slugs

This is by far one of my favorite animals collected on the expedition, I did not even knew these existed!

Marionia rubra

Marionia rubra

This slug’s sequesters/hosts single celled, algae as symbionts in its cerata (the fuzzy bits on its back).  The symbiosis is a mutualism: dinoflagellates from the genus Symbiodinium get raw materials required for photosynthesis and a safe place to live with full access to sunlight inside the slug’s body.  In return the dinos donate some portion of the sugars they generate from photosynthesis to the slug, meaning that most of the slug’s food is generated inside its body!

(Explanation courtesy of Dr. Michele Weber)

Elliott Jessup
Diving Safety Officer
California Academy of Sciences

Filed under: Academy,Diving,Jessup,Philippines,Shallow Water — ejessup @ 4:15 am

May 10, 2011

New species up the wazoo

Very few biodiversity specialists can look at their plant or animal in the field and immediately be fairly certain that they have found a new species or not. Working on nudibranchs provides a luxury in that regard. When we find something we can be pretty sure that whatever we find is something recognizable or something we have not seen before. That provides us with a huge advantage when undertaking surveys like the 2011 Philippine Biodiversity Expedition. Things started off slowly, and we did not find any new species on the first eleven dives we made. I was starting to get a little concerned that maybe the trips here over the last 19 years had finally reached saturation; that we had finally found everything that was here. Boy, was I wrong. The next night dive, we found 8 new species on one dive. It was a shallow dive of only 17 feet, but it was slug city. Most were fairly smallish (about 0.5-10 mm) and several were fairly cryptic, but they were clearly new.

a new species of Favorinus that feeds on the eggs of other nudibranchs

A new species of Favorinus that feeds on the eggs of other nudibranchs

A new species of Philinopsis with a tail like a spaniel.

A new species of Philinopsis with a tail like a spaniel.

Cerberilla sp., a new species of sand-dwelling aeolid nudibranch

Cerberilla sp., a new species of sand-dwelling aeolid nudibranch

It is almost as exciting to find a known species that has not been found previously in the Philippines. We have come across several of these old friends from different places. One species, Trapania darvelli is striking and had been previously known only from Hong Kong, Malaysia, Vanuatu and the Solomon Islands. Our always sharp-eyed dive guide, Peri Paleracio, turned up a gorgeous specimen in 60 feet of water on a morning dive.

The first Trapania darvelli from the Philiippines

The first Trapania darvelli from the Philiippines

Last year my former postdoctoral collaborator, Shireen Fahey, and I named a new species based on only one specimen collected from Okinawa. It is always a bit dangerous to name a new species from one specimen, but we were convinced that it was so different from all known species that we felt confident enough to name it Dermatobranchus dendronephthyphagus. And while that sounds like a mouthful, it was given this name because it was found on the soft coral Dendronephthya. One of the other season dive guides at Club Ocellaris, Alexis Principe, spotted three more Dermatobranchus dendronephthyphagus on a night dive at a dive site called Basketball, the first records for the Philippines.

The first specimen of Dermatobranchus dendronephthyphagus

The first specimen of Dermatobranchus dendronephthyphagus

Again logic prevails in the naming of dive sites. The site is located off a basketball court near the southern tip of the Calumpan Peninsula.
The hunt for new species is back on a normal pace. We are now up to 27 new species and have another four known species never recorded previously from the Philippines. We are back to the pace we have been on for the last several years of finding an average of one new species per dive.

Filed under: Diving,Gosliner,Philippines,Shallow Water — tgosliner @ 8:37 am

May 8, 2011

Rubble with a Cause

While other Shallow Water researchers are busily gathering sea urchins, sieving sediment for sand dollars, spotting vibrant and cryptic miniature sea slugs, stalking elusive reef fish, and gardening the reef to harvest symbiotic barnacles, I….as odd as this is going to sound….am collecting rocks.

A tub of.....rocks???

A tub of.....rocks???

Not just any rocks, mind you….. specifically coral rubble rocks. Coral rubble consists of fragments of hermatypic (reef-forming) coral which, over time and during storms, have broken from the reef and rest on the seafloor, providing habitat and surface area for the settlement of new recruits.  I collect these coral rubble fragments in search of polychaete worms.

When diving on a coral reef, several fairly obvious species of polychaetes can be observed. Polychaetes are a highly diverse (about 10,000 known species) group of segmented marine “bristle worms” distantly related to earthworms and which occur in all habitats of all marine ecosystems.  Polychaete worms vary in size from a couple of millimeters up to 2 meters in length.  These organisms serve as an important food source for birds, fish and other invertebrates, function in symbiotic relationships with various other reef organisms, and may even bio-engineer reef environments.

Examples of polychaetes you may have encountered in photos or on reefs include the “Christmas tree worms” and “feather duster worms”. These two types of sedentary polychaetes can be easily observed living in tubes deeply buried within large sections of live coral.  Many other polychaetes are free-living and do not form permanent tubes.

Spirobranchus gaymardi, "christmas tree worms", on coral
Spirobranchus gigantea complex cf. gaymardi, “christmas tree worms”, on live coral
Sabellastarte indica "feather-duster worm"

Sabellastarte indica, "feather-duster worm"

We are strongly against destructive sampling activities that would adversely affect the reef, so I don’t collect these worms burrowed in live coral. Many of these are common species, anyhow, and are quite well-studied (although others may benefit from taxonomic revision or DNA comparisons with other populations).

However…let me tell you….the really interesting stuff is in the rocks! As I dive, I typically head for the “dead” looking section of the reef.  You know, the area you might pass over accidentally on your way to the cool-looking colorful stuff but would certainly not intentionally photograph because it’s all basically one greyish color and has little interesting macro-fauna living associated with it.
This is my hunting grounds.

Searching for worms under coral rubble

Searching for worms under coral rubble

I carefully turn over all the most interesting-looking rocks and coral rubble in the immediate area. Sometimes I get lucky and there might be an obvious larger animal sheltering under the rubble, using it for cover from daylight as it waits to forage at night. Other times, there may be a nice fat worm tube stuck to the underside of the rubble…that one’s a keeper.

Most of the time, though, I just select a few rocks that I think look particularly promising, bag them up in whirlpacks and add them to my collecting bag. My rock collection helps keep me stay neutrally buoyant as my tank grows lighter at the end of the dive, but if I go overboard on collecting heavy stuff our Dive Safety Officer, Elliot Jessup, is often around with a lift bag (similar to an orange partly-deflated balloon) to help me slowly transport my rubble to the surface.

Using a lift bag makes carrying rubble easy

Using a lift bag makes carrying rubble easy

Collecting rubble may seem like sort of a weird activity, and perhaps folks don’t get quite as worked up about admiring my catch of rocks at the end of a dive as they might, say, a cool new fish. However, after the rubble sits in the tub next to my microscope for a few hours, it becomes apparent that these chunks of rubble abound with tiny yet fascinating cryptic organisms. In most cases, animals that live within rubble remain hidden for part or all of their lives, and thus are less likely to have been studied yet by humans. We can learn a great deal about the true biodiversity of a coral reef from closely examining its rubble communities.

Each batch of rubble and all animals from it is labeled with data

Each batch of rubble and all animals from it is labeled with data

Small organisms use the crevices and spaces within rubble rocks for a hard surface to attach to or for a refuge that is safely hidden from large predators. Miniature food webs occur within a chunk of rubble.  Algae is fed upon by grazers, who may in turn be fed upon by small predators.  Many organisms live within rubble crevices for much of their reproductive lives, releasing gametes or buds into the water column from these safe confines during their reproductive periods (more about this in a future posting).

Syllidae, a small but striking worm from the rubble

Syllidae, a small but striking worm from the rubble

Eunice, another resident of rubble

Eunice, another resident of rubble

Communities of organisms inhabiting coral rubble have been used in scientific studies for measuring diversity, productivity, and general reef health. Some organisms living in these communities assist in the breakdown of the rubble itself, permitting the release of calcium carbonate into the water for use in building new reef structure.

Dorvilleidae, another worm from rubble

Dorvilleidae, another worm from rubble

For me, examining coral rubble is an excellent way to sample for the small and cryptic “sleeper” critters  (such as polychaete worms) which live hidden lives buried deep within the reef ecosystem, quietly providing critical services to the community.

Once I have my samples, I can return the rubble back to the seafloor to be colonized again.

Filed under: Academy,Diving,Philippines,Piotrowski,Shallow Water — cpiotrowski @ 4:16 pm

Got the tools and they know how to use em’

Scientific Diving involves an extensive toolbox, some that might be familiar to the technical, commercial, or recreational diver, and some that are completely unique to science underwater.  One of the biggest challenges scientific divers run into is task loading.  The scientific diver is operating life support equipment while monitoring time, depth, and decompression status as they complete the scientific tasks underwater.  This can involve everything from running transect tape, laying line, working in quadrats, operating video and photo equipment, collecting, sampling, and recording all of this information accurately!

Proper education is a must and includes a minimum of 100 hrs of advanced training in areas such as physics, physiology, decompression, nitrox diving, navigation, site survey, collection, diver rescue techniques, CPR, 1st Aid, AED use, O2 Administration and more.  After scientific diver authorization the training doesn’t stop – underwater researchers are always learning new techniques and increasing their efficiency underwater with the proper tools for the job.  The following are  a few of the tools we are using on the 2011 Philippine Biodiversity Expedition:

Bob Van Syoc takes a clipping

EMT Shears double as a required cutting device and a collection tool used for taking small clips of corals without remove more than what’s needed.  “Whirl-pak” bags are used for storing specimens individually in salt water until they are preserved for future study, all the collections are then stored in a mesh collecting bag with a rigid opening and clipped to the diver with a double ended bolt snap.

Divers Notebook, Pockets, Backup lights, SMB, and Lift Bag

Underwater notebooks are a great addition to a research divers toolkit, enabling date recording and communication without the limited space of a slate which must be erased after each use. Auxiliary pockets can be useful storing smaller items that the diver might not want to clip to one of the d-rings on the backplate/wing/harness configuration. Surface Marker Buoys (aka Safety Sausages) are a must for ocean diving, they can not only be a life saver if caught in a current or diving with heavy boat traffic, but can also be used for live-boating to identify the divers location. LED lights are useful during night dives and during the day to make up for lost light associated with depth – very helpful when searching for the next new species!

Piotrowski and Jessup bring live-rock to the surface using lift bags.

Lift bags are used carefully for bringing samples such as live-rock to the surface.

Jessup using canister light to look for barnacles

The hip-mounted canister light provides considerably more lumens than the standard dive light, and allows for hands free operation.  These lights from Hollis Gear are 16 watts and provide up to 5 hours of burn time with a lithium battery. Also worn in this shot is a Datamask by Oceanic – this mask was designed for military use and provides the diver with a heads up display showing depth, dive time, decompression status, and tank pressure (via transmitter) all in the bottom right corner of the mask.  This one is new for me. I have to say I was quite skeptical at first, but after testing the mask extensively I’ve found a new tool that definitely improves a scientific dive!

Placing the camera

Underwater photo and video equipment can play a key role for the scientific research diver allowing them to document the worksite, specific species, and can even be used as shown leaving a weighted tripod at the bottom of the water column to record animal behavior without divers disturbing the habitat. Underwater housing and cameras can range from a few hundred dollars to tens of thousands for production quality media. With recent improvements in dSLR technology a research diver can capture both high resolution photos as well as high definition video all with a single mid-range priced camera.

With 140 safe dives under our belt and 28 new species discovered, the first two weeks of 2011 Philippine Biodiversity Expedition have been very successful for the shallow water team. Stay tuned for more posts from the rest of the team!

Elliott Jessup
Diving Safety Officer
California Academy of Sciences

Filed under: Academy,Diving,Jessup,Philippines — ejessup @ 3:41 am

May 4, 2011

The Underwater Gardener

As the Collection Manager of invertebrates (except for insects and arachnids) at the Academy, I have at least a passing interest in most animals without backbones.  The variation in body forms and lifestyles among these animals never ceases to fascinate and often boggles the mind.

My research is focused primarily on barnacles, the shrimp-like animals that make a hard shell to protect themselves from the rest of the world.

Boaters are familiar with barnacles as those pests that attach themselves to boat hulls.  Barnacle guys like me, however, often look for them living attached to other animals.  Barnacles of various sorts have evolved special adaptations that allow them to live on or in whales, sea turtles, sea snakes, crabs, lobsters, corals, and sponges.

With the Academy’s Dr. Gary Williams and Dana Carrison, I’ve been studying barnacles in the genus Conopea. This group of barnacles lives only on certain types of seafan or seawhip corals.


Seafan with barnacle gall in center of image

Seafan with barnacle gall in center of image

Photo: Bob Van Syoc

IMG_3571Photo: Bob Van Syoc

In the summer of 2009, Gary and I advised Liezl Madrona in the Summer Systematics Institute program at the Academy.


Liezl studied the Academy’s current collection of Philippines Conopea and discovered 3 new species among the unidentified specimens on our shelves.  Certainly, the collections resulting from the Philippines Biodiversity Expedition will add greatly to that number.

Collecting Conopea galls requires a sharp eye, something that I have now only with the aid of magnifying lens in the lower part of my mask, and a sharp pair of sturdy shears.

IMG_2780Photo: Elliott Jessup

I’ve become an “underwater gardener” of sorts.  Looking for little bumps on seafans and seawhips, then pulling my shears out of my mesh bag and trimming them off the coral “bush”.  This method of collecting allows the coral colony to live and continue to grow and provide habitat for more of my little Conopea friends.

IMG_2747Photo: Elliott Jessup

It’s difficult to know exactly how many species of Conopea barnacles we’ve collected on our Expedition to date.  We’ll only know that after we’ve carefully dissecting them in our lab at the Academy and compared them to the known species.  However, based on our previous work with Liezl and Dana, I think we have several new species to work up and describe.

There will certainly be more.  The underwater coral gardens of the Philippines extend out for many miles in all directions.  My shears will be busy trimming away small branches.


Filed under: Academy,Diving,Philippines,Shallow Water,Van Syoc — bvansyoc @ 2:23 am

April 30, 2011

First days of research diving in Mabini, Philippines

The 2011 Philippine Biodiversity Expedition dive team has completed a very successful first few days of research SCUBA diving in the Mabini area of the Philippines. The team traveled with 4 trucks and vans from Manila, through Batangas, Anilao, and finally to Mabini.

Shortly after settling into accommodations, an orientation and dive safety briefing was held.  This included location and review of our automated external defibrillator (AED), 1st Aid, and oxygen units (brought on each dive boat), review of the dive plan, and equipment configuration overview for the Academy research divers who are using new backplate/wing buoyancy compensators and regulators and more thanks to Hollis/Oceanic.

Equipment Configuration Briefing

Equipment Configuration Briefing...

Air sharing demonstration with a 7' long hose

Air sharing demonstration with a 7' long hose...

Equipment assembly

Equipment assembly...

After the orientation, we did shore entry check out dives, getting comfortable with equipment, proper weighting, practicing a few skills, and then some collecting.  The conditions were are superb with 75-100′ of visibility in flat calm 80 degree water – perfect for a first dive!

Getting in the water

Shore entry for the first dive...

Nitrox and Carbon Monoxide Analyzers

Nitrox and Carbon Monoxide Analyzers...

Since we’re planning multiple days of repetitive diving, we decided it would be best to dive on Enriched Air Nitrox to extend our bottom time and also reduce our nitrogen exposure.  Enriched Air Nitrox is a mixed gas composed of higher levels of oxygen than air (which is composed of 21% O2, 78% Nitrogen, and 1% trace gases).  Specifically we’re diving on Nitrox 32% which is the most common and versatile mix for our use.

The last two days were packed with scientific diving involving quite a bit of collecting along with photo and video documentation. All of the collecting requires a great amount of processing lasting late into the night.

Research team processing collections...

Research team processing collections...

More to come, time to get ready for another night dive!

Elliott Jessup
Diving Safety Officer
California Academy of Sciences

Filed under: Diving,Jessup,Philippines,Shallow Water — ejessup @ 3:26 am

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